Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

Louder than words - Case Study: Liberia: A page turned?

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 12 September 2012
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Louder than words - Case Study: Liberia: A page turned?, 12 September 2012, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Liberia's two wars (1989-1997 and 1999-2003) were characterised by grave human rights violations including the forced recruitment and use in hostilities of many thousands of children. The large numbers of girls and boys who participated in the wars (estimated to have been between 21,000 and 36,000)[1] led Liberia's subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to conclude that children were specifically targeted by all armed factions including government armed forces and allied armed groups, and were heavily relied upon to perform a broad range of tasks, such as porters, cooks, spies and scouts, domestic servants and sex slaves as well as taking part in active combat.

In its final report published in 2009, the TRC made wide-ranging recommendations to provide redress and reparations to child victims and prevent future human rights abuses against children. On the specific issue of underage recruitment and use it declared that the government of Liberia must "make re-recruitment of child soldiers impossible" and that it should "closely monitor recruitment into the newly reconstituted Armed Forces of Liberia and ensure that none of the recruits is younger than 18".[2]

Although many of the TRC's recommendations have yet to be acted upon, by the time the TRC report was published efforts were already well under way to address the specific question of how to prevent under-18s from being recruited as members of the newly constituted army.

Army reform: a post-conflict priority

Following years of human rights violations committed by security forces in Liberia, far-ranging reform of the security sector was widely regarded as an imperative. Signatories to the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to the second war agreed to disband irregular forces and restructure the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).[3] In the years that followed, an internationally driven process to radically reform security structures, including the military, has taken place.

Disbanding of irregular forces took place under a UN-led process to disarm, demobilise, reintegrate and rehabilitate (DDRR) fighting forces. The main forces involved were those loyal to the former president, Charles Taylor, some of which fought under the name of the official national army while others constituted loosely aligned militias.[4] They also included two armed opposition groups: the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement in Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). By the time the disarmament and demobilisation phase of the DDRR program ended in late 2004 over 100,000 ex-combatants had been released, of whom more than ten per cent were children (more than 10,000 children including more than 2,300 girls).[5]

In contrast to similar processes elsewhere, the DDRR process in Liberia did not absorb ex- combatants into government security forces. Rather, the AFL was itself disbanded and an entirely new, much smaller "light" national army recruited and trained.

Integrating child soldier concerns into SSR design

Although not originally planned for, the decommissioning of existing personnel provided a unique opportunity to build the AFL from scratch.[6] In particular it contributed to the objective of re-establishing public trust in the state security apparatus by ensuring that the army's new members were not tainted by past involvement in human rights abuses or other crimes. Candidates were vetted against a number of criteria including their human rights record, levels of education and age. Although the minimum age for voluntary recruitment to the armed forces according to legislation in force at the time (1956 National Defence Law) was 16, a policy decision was taken that candidates for recruitment to the newly formed AFL should be at least 18 years old.

The necessity of international technical and financial support in achieving these standards was recognised in the peace agreement which included a request for USA involvement in the restructuring of the army. As part of this support the private military company, DynCorp International, which had been awarded the contract by the US State Department to recruit and train the AFL, put in place a process to vet applicants.

Working closely with the Liberian authorities, DynCorp designed a selection process tailored to the context where the paucity of documentation that could reliably establish a recruit's identity, age, education or prior history created particular challenges. In relation to age, with birth registration rates standing at only four per cent even today, birth certificates were not an option for establishing age for the majority of candidates.[7]

The process used to select the original 2,000 new recruits relied instead on various alternative methodologies to establish eligibility, beginning with interviews with candidates and followed by a process of verification of facts provided by them. This involved a trawl of publicly available documentation, including hospital records and data from an NGO that had run extensive education support programs in Liberia for many decades. This was followed by on-site interviews with parents, neighbours, friends, members of local councils and churches, employers and other members of the candidates' community. The interviews were supplemented by information campaigns via the media to encourage the public to report any relevant information about the candidates.[8] A further review of files to finalise recruitment decisions was undertaken by the committee in charge of recruitment co-chaired by representatives of the Liberian Ministry of Defence and the US Embassy, and a civil society representative.

The time and resources required for this process were significant. Recruitment of the original batch of 2,000 troops originally planned for began in early 2006 and was not completed until 2009; training was ongoing at the time of writing.[9] Applicants were vetted individually by a team of national and international researchers at a rate of just three to five per researcher per week.

The success of the broader military reform process remains to be seen: although the government of Liberia officially assumed responsibility for development of the new army at the beginning of January 2010, it is not expected to reach fully independent operational status until 2014.[10] In the meantime concerns have been raised about cases of misconduct and desertions.[11] However, by all accounts the agreed criteria for candidates were strictly and uniformly implemented.[12]

Sustainability of the model

A challenge for all involved is to ensure the high standards continue to be enforced. Whether this can be achieved is an open question. The government has signed but has yet to ratify the Optional Protocol. It has, however, taken a number of legislative measures to prohibit child recruitment and use. A new National Defence Act was adopted in 2008 under which AFL service is open only to citizens of Liberia between the ages of 18 and 35. After a delay of several years a Children's Law entered into force in February 2012.[13] The law provides that children should be protected from involvement in conflict; prohibits the recruitment or conscription of any child by the Ministry of Defence and amends the Penal Code to criminalise recruitment and use of child soldiers.[14]

In the meantime, a division for vetting and intelligence has been established in the Ministry of Defence and was, as at March 2011, staffed by around 20-30 civilians. Although apparently committed to applying the vetting procedures, it will have to do so without the levels of technical expertise available to DynCorp or the continued financial support of the USA.[15]

Having shown how child soldier recruitment can be prevented when the issue is prioritised and resourced, the Liberian government and its donors should be mindful of protecting this achievement. It will be some years before birth certification can be employed to verify the age of new recruits. In the meantime continued investment in the alternative methodologies is critical – to short-change this process means short-changing children and putting them once again at risk of use as soldiers.


1 Republic of Liberia, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC of Liberia), Volume Three: Children, the Conflict and the TRC Children Agenda, Section 4.4.1 Recruitment and Reasons for Children to Join Armed Forces,

2 TRC of Liberia, Volume Three: Children, the Conflict and the TRC Children Agenda, Section 7 Recommendations,

3 Comprehensive Peace Agreement Between the Government of Liberia and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and Political Parties, Accra, 18 August 2003, available at:

4 The invasion of Liberia in 1989 by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led to the first conflict. He was elected President in 1997. By 1999 there was active fighting between government troops, including the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), and armed opposition groups – LURD in the west and north of the country and the MODEL in the east and south with support from neighbouring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire.

5 Children and armed conflict, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/59/695-S/2005/72, 9 February 2005.

6 The demobilisation of the AFL was completed in December 2005 and the USA launched its recruitment and restructuring program in January 2006.

7 See UNICEF, State of the World's Children 2012, Statistical Table on Child Protection,

8 Child Soldiers International confidential interview with former senior official with DynCorp in Liberia, May 2012.

9 See, Liberian Security Sector Reform (LSSR) Program, Security Sector Reform for National Defense Program, In January 2011, Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf declared the initial total force projection of 2,000 as inadequate and announced plans to recruit at least 300 more soldiers. See International Crisis Group, Liberia: How Sustainable is the Recovery? 19 August 2011.

10 It had been estimated that the army would become fully operational in 2012, but a number of factors, including insufficient equipment, delays in the procurement of new assets and continued delays in endorsing the national defence strategy, mean a delay in the army's full operational status to at least 2014. See Twenty-third progress report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UN Doc. S/2011/497, 5 August 2011.

11 See International Crisis Group, Liberia: How Sustainable is the Recovery? 19 August 2011.

12 See for example International Crisis Group, Liberia: Uneven Progress in Security Sector Reform, 13 January 2009,, and United States Institute for Peace, "Security Sector Reform in Liberia: Domestic Considerations and the Way Forward", April 2007,

13 UNICEF, "President Sirleaf launches Children's Law of Liberia", 4 February 2012.

14 Children's Law of Liberia, copy on file at Child Soldiers International.

15 Child Soldiers International interview with representatives of the Division of Vetting and Intelligence Section, Monrovia, March 2011.

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